Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Journey to the Edge: Flin Flon to Churchill

Having played Warhammer 40,000 for a lot of years, the industrial moonscape of the mining operations around Flin Flon was eerily familiar, but as soon as you are south of the town you enter a network of beautiful lakes and curvy roads. Unfortunately, everyone else in the Flex nodded off, so I was unable to snap any pictures from behind the wheel; perhaps on the way back.

Just outside Thompson, we followed my Uncle Wendell into the Paint Lake campground, and he and Lona made us a delicious lunch so we wouldn't be starving when we boarded the train. He also arranged to let us park at the bus depot instead of the train station, since it is a little more secure.
I'm not sure why,but I expected the Thompson train station to be a little bigger, but it is a fairly small building. Tara was ready to produce the tickets we'd printed at home as well as the ID proving who we were, and the ages of the children travelling with us, but they looked her up by last name and handed the tickets straight over. Never having travelled by rail before, I was unprepared for just how casual the whole affair was. Watching our bags sit on an open platform, and eventually loading them onto the baggage car ourselves was a real departure from being asked if you packed your bag yourself, having them x-rayed, getting frisked and then waiting in a security area before being asked to board in an orderly fashion, but the eight of us ended up pretty close together on the train anyways.
Train seats are not altogether different from bus seats, in that there are no seat belts or cupholders, and they do recline. There are two improvements however: they can be rotated so that two pairs of seats can face each other to facilitate conversation, and there is a foot rest that can be unfolded to make sleeping easier. On a journey scheduled to last 17 hours, this was of paramount importance!
We had heard conflicting reports about the availability of food on the train, and had packed a cooler and bag accordingly with dry sausage, fruit, snap peas and a two pound bag of Jelly Bellies, plus banana muffins and protein bars for breakfast. It turns out there actually is a simple dining car, with a number of burgers and snacks, as well as some $7 entrees, like shepherd's pie and Thai coconut curry. These were essentially decent quality microwave dinners, but eating a hot meal in a rocking rail car as we trundled towards the tundra only added to the sense of adventure. The accompanying roll was fresh and tasty, and butter was warm and spreadable. Being able to enjoy a beer or a highball while we lingered afterwards playing Blokus on the iPad and eating jelly beans was a real treat.
There are a number of communities north of Thompson served by the Churchill train, so the first half of the journey is punctuated by stops along the way at places like Gillam. We got off at one to stretch our legs, and to to meet a couple of friendly local mutts.
We crossed the Nelson river about 8:00, and there is just enough of a curve that you can see the engine from the dining car, so tried to snap a picture with my iPad. There are some pretty patches to be seen from the train,but in many places the trees come right up to the tracks and obscure whatever view there is. When there are breaks, you are treated to a broad horizon, trees which get lower as you travel further north, and lakes, marshes and bogs. Still no moose sightings though; aside from a coyote in northern Saskatchewan, the viewing has been mammal free.
About 9:00 we started bedding down for the night, getting the conductor to swing our seats forward again, extending the footrests and unpacking the blankets and pillows we'd brought. Audrey and Glory watched Jaws on one iPad while Fenya and I watched Django Unchained on the other. I'd forgotten Django was three hours long, so when it wrapped up around midnight we were more than ready to get to sleep. Each seat has access to a wall outlet, so I was able to plug in my CPAP and rest it on the floor; this was critical, because without the CPAP, not only do I not sleep, but my snoring will keep other passengers awake, or make them think the train is experiencing a catastrophic mechanical issue.

Once the train turned to the north, the ride became noticeably less smooth due to the unsettled mature of the tundra and muskeg we were driving, and instances of fairly pronounced rocking became frequent. Once I'd wedged myself into a somewhat comfortable sleeping position (Protip: Don't wear shorts on the train, as part of the footrest is vinyl, and your calves end up sticking to it a bit...), the rocking was actually a comfort, and helped send me off to Nod. Who needs a sleeping berth for +$300 a night?
I'm normally a side sleeper, and I change positions 3-4 times a night, so a really good night's sleep was out of the question, but even though I woke up regularly to shift about, I managed to go back to sleep every time. I woke up about 7:00, feeling fairly well rested, which surprised me, but not as much as the conductor who walked by 5 minutes later saying we would be pulling into Churchill in an hour. Somehow I'd gotten it into my head that we were arriving about noon, but the arrival time was actually 9:00, which we beat by an hour.

The Churchill train station is also a Parks Canada heritage building with some exhibits inside. The town itself (pop. 815) is low and long, a mix of tourism and industry. Overcast skies and a crisp wind made us glad we had left our jackets unpacked. Parker met us on the platform as we sorted our luggage out, and said, "you are going to get a taste of real Churchill weather; they are calling for 50-70 km/h winds today, soon boats are going out, and it will be grey and cool most of the week."

"That's fine with me," I replied. "I brought a great rain coat, and it isn't like I came here to tan."

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